Top 19 in 19: Meet the Women Behind Greenworks Lending
Recently we featured 19 women founders of renewable energy firms and Ali Cooley made the list as a co-founder of Greenworks Lending, lending firm for projects focused on saving energy and renewable energy. Read about what led her to Greenworks and the joys (and challenges) that come with owning a business.
1. What problem are you trying to solve? Where do you find your inspiration?
For as long as I can remember I have cared deeply about the environment. In recent years it has become abundantly clear that climate change is a very significant threat that is not going away on its own, and I have always wanted to find a meaningful way to help. In co-founding Greenworks Lending I have helped expand small business’ access to funding for clean energy projects. This has allowed me to channel my passions to positively affect the environment while supporting the growth of small businesses both locally and across the nation.
My commitment to the clean energy sector was cemented through my prior professional experience, where I traveled extensively through the developing world and analyzed traditional energy infrastructure projects and how policy, as well as market shifts, influenced investor returns. The deeper I got into the work, the more I realized I was missing a connection between my day-to-day work and the issues I cared most about solving. I returned to the States and entered Yale University’s joint MBA/Environmental Management program with a focus on the intersection of public energy policy and finance, where I gained insight on how the government can lay the foundation to create private enterprises that solve environmental and energy issues without overly burdening taxpayers.
After Yale, I joined the Connecticut Green Bank, where I oversaw and managed the development of over $100M in financial products for deploying clean energy in the state using mostly private capital. One of the initiatives I worked on was developing and implementing the underwriting criteria and capital markets strategy for the award-winning CT C-PACE program. There I found common ground with Jessica Bailey, who was leading Green Bank initiatives in the commercial real estate sector. In our time at the Green Bank, Jessica and I discovered how C-PACE could be transformative in unlocking clean energy upgrades in the commercial real estate market.
2.“The otherness that was hard at the beginning was my towering strength as a CEO,” said former PaperSource CEO Sally Pofcher at our last conference. What unique characteristics do you have? Was there something that may have been seen as odd or challenging or a weakness at one point in your career that has emerged as a strength as a founder and CEO?
I think my unique characteristics are twofold: I believe I have an excellent ability to spot opportunity and devise a strategic path to pursue it. With Greenworks, I knew there would be infinite potential in the market if we could crack the code on scale. Secondly, I think I have a keen sense of intuition when it comes to knowing when to push forward and when to hold back. Distinguishing between the two has made all the difference.
A challenge I have encountered as a young woman who started their own company before the age of 30 is that people haven’t always taken me seriously or give me the respect they might if it were an older man in my position. However, being authentic and staying true to myself has always been paramount, and regardless of the way people have treated me, I have not let that change who I am or how I conduct myself.
3. Tell us how you came up with your firm’s name. What does your firm’s name mean to you?
There is a quote from Barack Obama that really resonated with me and my co-founder when we were starting this company: “I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation, the only way it’s been done in America for 221 years — block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.”
Being in New England, my favorite properties have always been the old, industrial brick buildings that were literally put together brick by brick, many of which now sit fallow. I loved the idea of taking these old buildings with so much history and character and revitalizing them with new, energy efficient systems. The symbolism in the juxtaposition of old and new has always struck me.
4.Tell us about the decision to go it alone versus partner up with co-founders. What would you look for in a co-founder?
I met my Greenworks Lending cofounder, Jessica Bailey, when we were both working at the CT Green Bank, a public agency that set up financing programs within Connecticut. It was Jessica who sold me on C-PACE. I had never heard of it before, but once she taught me about it, it struck me as a uniquely promising product for small to mid-sized businesses with incredible growth potential. As with any great partnership in life, our skills and personalities complement one another.
Jessica was able to bring value when it came to the public policy and leading/designing the origination strategy , whereas I saw how to build the product in a way that would work for the capital markets and handled the more internal-facing business and operations side. We each brought our own unique and valuable qualities to the table. Our relationship has been incredibly transformative both personally and professionally – she has become one of my dearest friends through the process of starting a company together.
5. How long did it take to raise your first round of capital or your first fund? What lessons did you learn during fundraising that you can share with others?
Rather serendipitously, we met our seed investors right as we were thinking of starting the company. We started Greenworks Lending in January of 2015 and we closed our first round of capital in March. We’ve since raised four total rounds of equity capital. I’ve learned the hard way that it is important not to get disheartened by being told “no.” Eventually it will click and eventually you will get there.
6. What advice would you have to a class of 11th grade girls interested in business, finance or entrepreneurship?
Don’t be afraid of failure. From failure we learn grit, perseverance, and develop strength of character. It is exceptionally rare to succeed on your first try, so you must be committed to push forward and learn from failure and not let it define you. The corollary to that is that you need to be your #1 customer to have the required confidence. You need to believe in yourself to work through the “nos”!
I think it’s also important for women to learn how to disagree. Don’t be afraid to disagree. Don’t be afraid to rock the boat and stand up for what you know is right. But explain why and where you’re coming from because it allows you to do it in a way that strengthens your relationships and maximizes common ground. My co-founder calls this “showing your work.”
7. How do you continue to develop yourself?
It’s very important to me to continually be learning. I make it a goal to read at least one new book a month. I recently started a book club at Greenworks so the organization can continue to develop as well. I am also constantly asking for feedback from colleagues; I find constructive criticism is an incredibly important tool for self-improvement and development.
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